Dragon director’s revenge drama is dead on arrival

Fans of Niels Arden Oplev’s original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) can certainly breathe easy while the rest of us hyperventilate, as the Danish director has certainly survived the transition to Hollywood with his predilection for overwrought plotting and sticky melodrama firmly intact. The anaemically titled Dead Man Down is little more than a half-baked exercise in foolishness regarding Victor (Farrell), a Hungarian immigrant living in New York who’s inveigled himself into the inner circle of callous mobster Alphonse Hoyt (Howard) in order to exact a needlessly convoluted piece of violent retribution on the man that killed his family.


Victor initially appears to have acquired a local fan in neighbour Beatrice (Rapace), but she too has a bone that needs picking, and while the pair are out on a date, she pulls out her phone and plays a video of Victor strangling someone to death in front of his window, a twist that makes him seem fairly inept for an ostensibly intelligent man, and that also reminds us of how good a film Rear Window really is. She thus attempts to blackmail him into killing the drunk driver who left her with what the script assures us is a facial disfigurement, despite all visual evidence suggesting nothing more than a mild rash or even just some poor makeup artistry. The irony of Beatrice working as a beautician is certainly not lost here.


If Victor refuses to kill the man who disfigured her, she snarls she will go to the coppers. Beatrice doesn’t actually use the word ‘coppers’, which is a shame, because the film might have been better if director Oplev had opted to play with the genre clichés stuffed in this turkey instead of going for out-and-out action. There is a little distractive talent to be found in Dead Man Down, notably from French actress Huppert, who is excellently quirky as Rapace’s cookie-baking near-deaf mother. It is however unclear whether JH Wyman wrote the script with his tongue wedged deep in his cheek or if Oplev inadvertently pushed the film to the brink of comedic calamity.


Either way, one of the many pleasures of cinema-going is to be found in the suspension of disbelief, and while one may be fully absorbed in a film, unless you’re a child or certifiable, you never actually quite put aside your sense of reality, but gladly agree to accept a fictional flow. Some directors never manage to spin their webs successfully enough for this to happen, while others fall short with anachronisms, miscasting, lazy filmmaking or merely just a solitary false note. Other films may lose you, only to reel you back in tentatively with a spark of intelligence or an image or scene that endures.


So it goes with Dead Man Down, a thriller that piles on its absurdities so fast and with such a lack of self-reflexivity that you hope and pray you’ll soon be watching either a diverting art-film intervention, such as Werner Herzog’s 2009 remake of Bad Lieutenant, or joyriding with one of those rarest of screen delights: an absolute boiler.


Dead Man Down unfortunately turns out to be too innocuous to qualify either as actually good or delectably bad. Yet while Farrell and his over-acting eyebrows help steer the film away from total disaster, the gangland clichés, ridiculous scripting and seemingly random casting choices (F Murray Abraham, Armand Assante, Huppert) stoke your hopes that true cinematic madness may rise out of the darkening shadows and pessimism.


Dead Man Down

Dir: Niels Arden Oplev; US action/drama, 2013, 117 mins; Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Terrence Howard, Dominic Cooper, Isabelle Huppert
Premiered June 6
Playing nationwide